The Problem With That Big Little Lies Courtroom Scene

The show once known for its subtle depictions of trauma is now taking refuge in melodrama.

Celeste receives—but does not necessarily take—advice from her lawyer. (Jennifer Clasen / HBO)

This article contains spoilers through Season 2, Episode 6 of Big Little Lies.

“The trauma-related experience is locked there, whereas other details kind of drift.”

That was Christine Blasey Ford, the research psychologist, testifying to Congress last year about an attack she said she had endured decades before—and offering, in the process, a national lesson on how trauma affects the human brain. Julie K. Brown, the journalist who both broke and sustained reporting about the alleged abuses of Jeffrey Epstein, expressed a similar sentiment in an interview with WNYC earlier this year: “Actually,” Brown said of trauma victims, “you should expect that their memories are not going to be consistent.” Barbara Bradley Hagerty echoes the insight this week in The Atlantic. “To police officers who haven’t been trained to spot signs of trauma,” Hagerty writes, explaining why so many sexual assailants have evaded justice, “many rape victims appear to be lying.”

So it was jolting when, in an early scene in Sunday’s episode of Big Little Lies, Celeste (Nicole Kidman)—in a flashback to an interview she gave to detectives following the death of her husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård)—uttered the following, halting line: “I just feel like … I don’t have a proper … memory of everything. So that’s why it’s a little inconsistent.”

In one way, this is another nuanced treatment of trauma in a show that has become known for them. Big Little Lies may be a comedy of manners and a moody noir and an indictment of late capitalism and a Bravo-adjacent confection about housewives and their secrets; it has always been most interesting, though, as an exploration of trauma, with all its stubbornness and stickiness and cruelty. Here is Celeste, the character who has most directly embodied trauma’s contradictions, bringing nonfictional insights (“you should expect that their memories are not going to be consistent”) to the television screen. The problem, however, is this: The story Celeste is telling investigators is not inconsistent because she is traumatized. It is inconsistent because she is lying. Celeste is presenting the version of events that the women known as the “Monterey Five” had set as their story, rather than admitting that Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), defending the other women against Perry, had pushed him to his death. Celeste, in her interrogation, is weaponizing the truth about trauma to tell—to sell—a falsehood.

It’s a brief moment in Sunday’s show, but it manages to do a substantial disservice to the progress Big Little Lies had made in its corrective depiction of trauma. It is one of many such moments in the show’s second season, which has eschewed much of the productive complication that made the previous season work so well: the collisions of camp and psychodrama; the tanglings of comedy and horror; the mockery of characters that gives over to empathy. What has resulted, this time around, is something much more jagged and discordant than what came before. Scenes halt, characters twist with little warning, and the genres that used to blend with pelagic fluidity now chafe against each other. “Bad Mother,” the penultimate episode of the show’s new season, ostensibly offers a series of reckonings. In practice, however, it is a parable about how difficult true reckoning can be.

“Bad Mother” homes in on slow-building clashes between the show’s mothers and daughters. Celeste and her mother-in-law, Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), finally face off in a comically Instagrammable courtroom. Jane (Shailene Woodley) finally erupts in rage at the machinations of Mary Louise, the grandmother of her son. Bonnie, coming to terms with the seemingly impending death of her abusive mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), finally admits, out loud, to a lifetime’s accumulation of resentments. Each pairing explores, in theory, the subtleties of violence’s aftermath. Each emotional crescendo, as the season draws to a close, might have offered new observations about the trauma that hovers over these characters, the way fog lingers over the crashing waves of the Pacific.

Instead: Melodrama wins the day. The waves crash, but the flow has no ebb. Bonnie, who in the show’s second season has finally gotten the screen time she was deprived of in earlier episodes—but who is beset with an arc that finds her weighted down by depression and guilt—seems, finally, to get a moment of release: a confrontation with her mother, as the two are alone in Elizabeth’s hospital room. “I killed Celeste’s husband,” Bonnie tells her mother, “and he didn’t slip. I pushed him. I snapped, and when I lunged at him, I was pushing you. And that push was a long time coming.”

The confession has the contours of catharsis; Bonnie is making it, though, to a woman who is comatose. She will get no reply. Her rage hangs in that claustrophobic hospital room, unresolved and incomplete. It’s an elliptical ending made all the more frustrating by the fact that, throughout the second season, Big Little Lies has also treated Bonnie’s abuse as a tease: What did her mother do to her? What does drowning have to do with it? Tune in next week to find out.

There is a similar lack of nuance in Jane’s long-in-the-making face-off with Mary Louise. As Jane arrives at Mary Louise’s apartment door, begging her to call off her custody suit against Celeste, the older mother threatens the younger one: “Are you struggling, Jane?” she asks. “With your conscience, perhaps? Ziggy told me you purchased a gun. Did you plan to use it on my son? Did you move to Monterey to hunt him down?”

Mary Louise slams the door in Jane’s face. Jane screams in reply—“Do you know the difficulty that my son is gonna have to face, being a product of rape? Because of your fucking son?” Her words grow more difficult to hear, not only because she is pounding the door as she yells, but also because the background music that is so often a supporting character in the show’s scenes is swelling to an almost oppressively high volume. The strains of Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over” (Golden days before they end / Whisper secrets to the wind / Your baby won’t be near you anymore) take over the moment. Mary Louise is silent; the show’s production is what’s loud.

Meryl Streep can sell almost anything, but even she has trouble selling a scene that is such an abrupt departure for both participants. Jane has spent the show’s previous episodes reflexively internalizing her pain; Mary Louise has spent them being quietly manipulative. The sudden loudness between the two might make for drama, but it doesn’t make much sense. Their encounter reads not as a climax, long in the making, but rather as camp. Jane and Mary Louise are characters whose intersecting stories speak to the complicated cyclicalities of violence. Their clash might have explored that. Instead, the scene flattens them down to a woman who screams and another who slams the door.

The heart of “Bad Mother,” however—the ultimate crescendo it presents—is the questioning Celeste endures on the witness stand at family court, as Mary Louise’s cunning lawyer, Ira Farber (Denis O’Hare), questions Celeste about her sex life, her relationship with Perry, her relationship with drugs, and her fitness as a mother.

“You were aroused by the violence?” Farber asks her, after acknowledging that he is, himself, a survivor of domestic abuse.

“I was not aroused by the violence,” Celeste replies.

“You never said that, that the incendiary exchanges with your husband, including the physical violence, led to gratifying and passionate sex? Did you ever say that?”

“My relationship with my husband was very complicated.”

Complicated. Was it sick?”

“It was not healthy.”

“Are you over your sickness?”

“Objection,” Celeste’s lawyer calls.

“Sustained,” Judge Cipriani (Becky Ann Baker) responds.

Farber rephrases. “Did you miss the violence?”

“No,” Celeste replies. “I do not. I miss my husband. But I don’t miss getting beat up. So.”

The questions go on like this, unrelenting in their litany. They include Farber sharing pictures of the men Celeste has had sex with in the aftermath of Perry’s death, grainy images shot from a surveillant distance. (Mary Louise hired a private detective to trail her, Celeste later speculates.) The questions are meant to humiliate Celeste and degrade her and, ultimately, break her; there is, for all the formal niceties playing out in Judge Cipriani’s courtroom, a quiet barbarity to the whole thing. At several points, Celeste looks over to the judge, silently, pleadingly, expecting that she might intervene to end the humiliation. For reasons left unclear, Judge Cipriani does not.

You could, in this exchange, read some of the insights of Christine Blasey Ford and Julie K. Brown and Barbara Bradley Hagerty: A woman is testifying to her pain, offering it up to the public record—and that pain is being publicly questioned. “You were aroused by the violence?” Farber says, in a question designed to turn Celeste’s own trauma against her. The whole thing is gutting to watch. But the courtroom setting, at the same time, lends a notable coldness to the proceedings. This is legal theater. The trauma here doubles, uncomfortably, as performance.

On Friday, IndieWire published a story detailing the creative turmoil of Big Little Lies’ postproduction, and the writer Chris O’Falt’s reporting explains a lot about the choppy episodes that have resulted from the churn. Celeste’s on-stand suffering in “Bad Mother” is a step toward the even more climactic clash that will come, ostensibly, in the season’s final episode: Mary Louise will take the stand. And Celeste—the lawyer who is fighting for her children—will be the one to question her. It’s a conclusion that has the feel of inevitability, and not only because Big Little Lies’ showrunner, David E. Kelley, has long gravitated toward courtroom-centered clashes. There’s also an aptness to a show that has lost its earlier nuance finding its resolution in the structured exchanges of the courtroom scene. One side here, the other there; the hero here, the villain there: It will be great melodrama. The question is whether it will be much more than that.